Fuzzy Math: Not Making The Grade

Funny numbers in education

By Robert A. George
|  Tuesday, Oct 20, 2009  |  Updated 12:30 AM PDT
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Obama's Littlest Constituents

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President Barack Obama (L) has made education reform a priority of his administration -- and selected former Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan as education secretary to prove it. A report released by the administration on the "success' of the stimulus package is an embarrassment to both the president and his education secretary -- as is a new union contract in Hawaii that cuts 17 days from the school year.

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Though not getting quite the attention as the economy and health care, education has also been something of a major domestic priority for President Obama.  As an example of the importance he placed on the issue, he pulled his friend and well-respected education reformer Arne Duncan from running the Chicago school system and named him secretary of education. 

So far, Duncan has received fairly good "grades" from across the education spectrum. Another way of saying that is that the Department of Education is perhaps the least-criticized by Obama opponents (with the notable exception of one Keith Jennings). And so, in this one area, the president is looking good.  

That said, Obama might want to note two developments this week that could embarrass him on the education front.  

Item 1: The White House and the DOE release a statement that, because of the financial stimulus, 250,000 education jobs were "created or saved.":

Federal economic recovery aid has created or saved 250,000 education jobs, the Obama administration announced Monday, although states and school systems continue to face enormous fiscal pressures.

The report issued by the White House and the Education Department does not address how many education jobs have been cut this year because of the recession, nor does it project how many are in jeopardy in the coming year. 

Considering that the federal stimulus was $787 billion, the quarter-million "created or saved" education jobs (spread over 50 states) is pretty thin gruel.  Furthermore, the report doesn't exactly quantify what those jobs were -- or where!

Of course, this isn't the first time the administration has used the "saved or created" formulation. Indeed, that's been the preferred phrase since the stimulus was introduced in the late winter.  And the problem remains. It's fairly easy to assess a job "created." But how does one identify one that didn't disappear? For that matter, how does one critiquing such a formulation prove that a job wasn't created? Indeed, no officially recognized federal employment-analyzing agency uses the "saved" construction. 

Even if the "saved" assertion existed, what does the president have to say about...

Item 2: In Hawaii, because of a union contract, kids will only be going to school four days a week. Yep, no school on Fridays -- because of budgetary concerns. This is doubly embarrassing to Obama. First, because this is his native state. But more importantly, because he recently has called for a longer school year for students.  Instead, Hawaiian students will be spending less time in school than kids in the other 49 states:

The deal whacks 17 days from the school year for budget-cutting reasons and has education advocates incensed that Hawaii is drastically cutting the academic calendar at a time when it already ranks near the bottom in national educational achievement.

While many school districts have laid off or furloughed teachers, reduced pay and planning days and otherwise cut costs, Hawaii's 171,000 public schools students now find themselves with only 163 instructional days, compared with 180 in most districts in the U.S.

Looks like Hawaii didn't get a great enough share of "saved" jobs, eh?  

Obviously, the federal government can't guarantee jobs in every state (nor should it). But it is nothing short of shameful that a state should make a union contract that would permit that many days cut out of the school year. Is it really the case that more resources can't be found elsewhere -- enough that would allow schoolkids to have a full 180 days in school?   

Secretary Duncan should put in a call to Honolulu and ask what the state was thinking. Jobs may or may not be "saved" because of the Obama stimulus. One thing's for sure, however:  The futures of a whole lot of kids in the president's native state aren't being saved by losing precious school days. 

 New York writer Robert A. George blogs at Ragged Thots. Follow him on Twitter.

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